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Alien Scientist 53: Universal Darwinism

Stephen Marshall, a former resident of Tsukuba, has been writing Alien Scientist articles for the Alien Times since 2001. Even though he no longer lives in Tsukuba, he is still a regular contributor to the magazine. Here is his latest intergalactic report.

Alien ScientistEvery country has its national heroes. Often these are leaders of some kind, who may only have historical or cultural significance within their own land. But some achievements are significant enough to be recognised internationally. Confucius or Shakespeare, for example, are often regarded as expressing things profound and timeless about the human condition, considered to be of universal significance. Of course, it is an anthropocentric leap to equate universal significance with the human condition – as opposed to, say, the cephalopodal condition. And this is to say nothing of the ‘condition’ of any life-forms beyond Earth.

In The Devil’s Chaplain, Richard Dawkins suggests that alien visitors to Earth would not necessarily be interested in Shakespeare, Marx or Freud, as their achievements are relatively parochial and ephemeral (although one can imagine that specialist alien Earthologists or historians of xenoliterature might still have a browse).

Dawkins, however, argues that Charles Darwin’s achievement in formulating the theory of natural selection to explain the evolution of living things should be considered alongside Einstein’s breakthroughs in physics and cosmology, as being of timeless, universal value. Dawkins suggests that aliens should not only recognise the significance of Darwin’s question – about how life evolves – but should also be interested in Darwin’s answer, as being potentially true of all life, anywhere.

Of course, it partly depends on what we mean by life, in the first place. For a start, we assume that life-forms actually have a life – exist for a while and then die. Something simply continuously existing, like a scatter of interplanetary dust, would not count. Something that was more complex and that changed over time, like a planetary atmosphere, would not seem to count either as living or evolving.

Some phenomena that seem to have some life-like quality to them, like fire, may invite us to wonder if they could count as being some sort of alien form of life. A fire, of course, can maintain itself and spread, but does not reproduce itself. Put another way, a fire can be generated spontaneously from something that is not fire. In other words, fire – however otherwise life-like – does not propagate by reproduction in the way organisms do.

By reproduction, we mean creating a new entity that is something like a new copy of itself. This introduces the possibility of iterations of successive generations. This implies something different from metamorphosis, like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, where one entity serially replaces the other, but is really a continuation of the same thing but in a different form.

And crucially, if any individual can reproduce more than one offspring, then this opens the door to variation, and multiplication, and hence diverging lineages.

So, if we imagine a ‘life-form’ as something that lives (generated from one of its kind), reproduces (potentially a multiplicity of different offspring), and dies, then we start to home in on the conditions for competition, differential fitness and differential survival, adaptive radiation, and hence evolution by natural selection.

This is not to say that aliens would evolve exactly like Earthling species. There could be any number of differences in details, and some of these might take us beyond Darwinian evolution.

As Dawkins has pointed out, it is possible that alien life-forms could have different kinds of genetics and embryology that would allow acquired characteristics to be inherited, and therefore to open the door to a kind of Lamarckian evolution.

And, if humans were to create artificial organisms that could reproduce and evolve in some way – whether self-replicating robots or something evolving from ‘spam’ – then those ways of evolving could in principle exist elsewhere, and could have already been exploited ‘naturally’ as a viable form of evolution for organic aliens.

The point is that even if differing in detail, it seems likely that any alien entity that lives (and reproduces and dies) in the way we recognise as life, could be expected to evolve in a way we recognise as evolution. Hence why we should not be surprised to find any alien visitors to have themselves evolved by natural selection, and for them to appreciate Darwinism, whether or not their own biologists had independently discovered their own version.

Hence why Darwin is still celebrated 200 years after his birth, not only as a national hero in his home country, but as a great contributor to our understanding of the human condition – and the condition and evolution of all currently known life.